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Saying "Grace"

Date: Feb 04, 2008


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The ritual of theatre may have begun in conjunction with religious observances. And though temples and theatres have gone their separate ways in the centuries since the Greeks, religion still has its theatrical aspects, and the theatre likewise retains some of its ritual, even superstitious character (the ghost light, anyone?).

It should be no surprise, then, that ecclesiastical issues and characters remain among the mainstays of drama. In recent decades, plays about religious faith have looked at the church as a struggling institution (Racing Demon), examined generational tensions among clergy (Mass Appeal, Doubt) or explored the nature of spiritual longing (100 Saints You Should Know).

Into the fray comes MCC Theater's production of Grace, a new play by A.C. Grayling and Mick Gordon, which opens Feb. 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Grayling, one of Britian's most recognizable public intellectuals, is a Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. He wrote a regular column for The Guardian and contributes to The Economist, The New Statesmen and BBC radio. He is among the ranks of the so-called "new atheists," a cadre of intellectuals which includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who have spoken up in books and editorials with an increasing sense of urgency in recent years.

In Grace, Lynn Redgrave plays a public intellectual, a professor known for her atheist views, whose world is turned upside down when her adult son, played by Oscar Isaac, announces that he's becoming an Anglican priest. Grayling recently corresponded with TDF about the theatre, fundamentalism and the nature of spiritual experience.

Q: You've had a broad audience for your views in books, in the academy, on television and radio and in newspapers. So why do a play at a smallish theatre in New York?

A.C. Grayling: Theatre is a powerful way of exploring human experience and concerns, especially when what it tackles seems a difficult subject to stage (as with the quarrel between the religious and non-religious outlooks), for if it succeeds its impact is greater, more immediate and compelling, than words on a page. I think that the conversation of mankind has to be carried on in all the forms available to us. What we address in the play I've often debated in print and on TV, sure enough. But communicating and discussing in different media widens the perspective, and adds dimensions.

Q: What is your background in the theatre (and yes, plays at school count)?

Grayling: Like anyone in love with theatre, I acted in school plays and amateur dramatics later (some starring roles: Campbell in Campbell of Kilmore, one of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral). And even before I started, as owner-editor, Online Review London (a performing arts review magazine for top-end theatre, opera and ballet) eight years ago, I was a constant theatregoer--as a student, sometimes going every night to different productions and spending all my allowance on the habit.

Theatregoing is a necessity as well as a pleasure. I think involvement in theatre is an ancient and central human cultural imperative. It certainly is so for all those who care about it and find it an important adjunct to what Socrates called "the considered life."

Q: Knowing your view of religion--not favorable--would it be fair to expect that Grace is a polemic? Or, to put it another way: Is the character of the young man entering the priesthood at all a sympathetic figure, and is Lynn Redgrave's character, the atheistic professor, entirely sympathetic?

Grayling: The play is not a polemic either for or against religion. It portrays the irreconcilable-seeming conflict between the religious and non-religious outlooks, and explores some ways that people might be able to get along even across such divides. We give the best arguments to the non-religious character, because they naturally belong there, and the most charming and attractive personality to the religious character, because the seductions of faith are a matter far more of emotion than reason. This provides a kind of balance in the play, and illustrates the tug between mind and heart that is part of the deep problem of the divisions and conflicts prompted by religion.

Q: Are you familiar with Mike Leigh's Two Thousand Years, his first play dealing with his Jewish heritage, which will go up soon in New York? I mention it because it's about a secular Jewish family whose son has returned to the faith with a vengeance (to their horror and consternation, of course). Do you think a purely secular environment or upbringing will inevitably send some people looking for spiritual succor and the concomitant sense of identity it can provide? Is there a way around this impasse?

Grayling: I don't know Mike Leigh's play, but look forward to seeing it. My own passionate conviction is that the humanistic outlook--by which I mean the tradition of thought about the good life and the good society, about human flourishing and achievement, about the best kinds of relationships that underlie human happiness--has an amazing richness and promise for the ethical and spiritual needs of mankind. It is older than Christianity and Islam, stretching back to Socrates and before; it invokes no superstitious beliefs or supernatural agencies, but is premised on our best understanding of human nature and the human condition; and its demand is for reflective autonomy and individual responsibility, for kindness and fellowship, for the exercise of personal liberty coupled with deep concern for others. I've written about this often, most directly in two books, respectively called What Is Good? (the book that was the first impulse for this play) and The Choice of Hercules.

Q: Can you tell me about the contributions of co-playwright Mick Gordon, and about your first experience as a writer for the theatre?

Grayling: Mick Gordon is a wonderfully talented writer and director, with a superb theatrical mind. He read my What Is Good? and asked me to collaborate on a play about the religious/non-religious divide in contemporary society. We spent a long time meeting often and talking and toying with ideas about how to do it; meanwhile Mick and his assistant Chris Haydon interviewed a number of religious and non-religious luminaries (including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins) to gather material for the play. We wove this material into the play so that authentic voices, authentic experiences speak through the story of the family division caused by the opposed views.

A play evolves through rehearsal and performance and through the talent brought to it by actors and directors. For someone who spends most of his working time alone before a computer screen, the experience of working collaboratively in the theatre is exhilarating--especially with this cast, this director, this co-writer, and these wonderfully responsive and intelligent New York audiences.

For more information about Grace, go here.